Mental Health is a topic I feel very strongly about. Having battled and overcome depression twice, it’s something I actively have to work on daily to keep healthy.
Mental health encompasses emotional, psychological and social well-being and it affects how we act, think and feel. A study in New Zealand found that one in four people reported having seriously considered suicide or self-harm which is both shocking and alarming to me!
“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.” – Glenn Close
A few days ago I was drafting a completely different post to the one you are now reading. *Ding*, I looked at my phone and smiled, it was one of my bffs. Reading the message I knew immediately something was wrong. “… I will always be thankful for your friendship and everything.. I will always love you please remember that. X”. I dropped everything and replied, “Love you too xxx”, “You ok? XXX”. She responded, “No I’m not.. but don’t worry.”. The next message was a link to a song which began, “Now it’s time for me to go. A new dawn for my little soul. So goodbye beloved friend. There’s a life beyond, this is not the end.”.
My friend very rarely reaches out when she is having difficulties; something I understand all too well. I often feel like a burden which results in me retreating into my shell and dealing with my problems alone. I was thankful she reached out but the tone of the conversation had me in full blown panic mode.
“You don’t have to be positive all the time. It’s perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, scared and anxious. Having feelings doesn’t make you a negative person. It makes you human.” — Lori Deschene
There is a wonderful suicide prevention organisation in Australia called ‘R U OK?’ which promotes the idea that “a conversation could change a life”. They suggest the following four steps:
- Ask R U OK?
- Encourage Action
- Check in
I was on step two at this point, desperately trying to find out where she was and what had happened. I offered words of support and encouragement and told her that I was there for her no matter what. Her replies were short and anguished in tone, “No I can’t take this pain any longer… I can’t handle it…Why are you so far away… I feel so alone”. As I hastily tried to pour every ounce of support, love and emotion into a reply, another one came through, “it’s better for me to leave this world.. no-one loves me.. no one needs me.. I just bring pain in everyone’s life“. I proceeded to send three messages which got no reply. Ten minutes passed and I messaged again; nothing. Another ten minutes: “I’m really worried please message and let me know you are ok xx”. Radio silence.
“Just because no one else can heal or do your inner work for you doesn’t mean you can, should, or need to do it alone.” – Lisa Olivera
At this point I was losing my mind! I thought of every worst case scenario and knew I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to help. After my attempts to call my friend and her husband went unanswered I called a mutual friend who was geographically the closest person I knew to her. Unfortunately it was three o’clock in the morning her local time and her phone was off. I began hoping my friend had just gotten tired and fallen sleep but I daren’t be nonchalant about it. I had to take the last message at face value; my friend was so unhappy she was thinking about taking her life.
The following hours were horrendous. I felt helpless and my own mental health was declining by the minute. Maybe I wasn’t supportive enough. Did I say the wrong thing? I hadn’t shown her how much I cared about her – I was a terrible friend! I scoured the internet for ways to contact her local police office but the websites were in another language. What would I tell them anyway? I didn’t have the address for my friend to hand and I’ve never memorised a European address in my life! All I could do was wait for whomever was going to send me a reply back first.
My friend in need was thankfully the one to get back to me first. She called in flood of tears, full of self-doubt and loathing, barely able to speak. My personal struggles with mental health have taught me that the best thing anybody can do is listen; so I did. Two hours later she had told me all of the issues that were consuming her and so I moved on to step three. I shared what little wisdom I felt I had and gave some suggestions as to how she could break each issue down. By the end of the call she sounded calmer and we agreed to check in once she had taken some of the immediate steps.
The subsequent check-in went well and by that time our mutual friend was also on the scene offering support. I don’t know how serious my friend was about ending her life that night, I’m too scared of the answer to ask the question, but I do know if I hadn’t asked, “R U OK?” the outcome may have been very different.
“We do as we have been done by.” ―
John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a psychoanalyst who believed that mental health and behavioural problems could be attributed to early childhood. I became familiar with his theory of attachment when studying for my Childhood and Youth Studies degree and it is one I’m still fascinated by today. The main points of Bowlby’s theory are:
- Children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments.
- A child has an innate need to attach to one main attachment figure.
- The critical period for developing attachment is up to 2.5 years of age.
- Disruption of the attachment could result in cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties for that infant.
- The relationship with the primary caregiver provides an internal working model (cognitive framework) comprising of mental representations for understanding the world, self and others. It becomes a prototype for all future social relationships.
When you think about it like that it appears we start dealing with mental health right from birth. Babies are reliant on adults to provide them with everything they need to survive and thrive whilst adults rely on cues to indicate what babies need and when. This is not easy during those first years without language but crying and gesticulation seem to work well for both parties!
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ― Henry David Thoreau
I have suffered with self-doubt and anxiety since I was a teenager and if I choose to relate it to Bowlby’s theory I can definitely pinpoint some reasons why this might be the case. It’s no surprise (to me at least) that I was / am susceptible to mental health disorders such as depression and PTSD.
Those experiences and how I survived them deserve their own posts but for now let me share a few of the lessons learned:
- Nobody can pull you out of a mental health episode but yourself. Many well-wishing friends and family will try. They’ll give advice, invite you out, provide tough love but ultimately they will not understand when you choose to ignore all of it. During my first bout of depression my significant other tried all of the above tactics. I think it broke him a little that I didn’t try to get better for him – I just wasn’t ready. It was a long time before I was able to work on myself, but when I finally did it was because I wanted to get better for me! Friends, partners, and sometimes even family, may come and go but the one person staying with you forever is you. Do everything in life for yourself!
- Reaching out to professionals is not a sign of weakness. I really struggled to reach out during my depressive episodes. When the mind is full of all-consuming self-doubt it’s hard to believe you’re not burdening others with your troubles. During a moment of clarity I remembered Doctors are there for everyone, regardless of burden, so I booked an appointment. Being able to reach out and let somebody suitably qualified in was the first step of my journey to recovery. I was prescribed anti-depressants which helped regulate my moods and thoughts. Over time I began experiencing more moments of positivity and self-love which resulted in me participating more in life. By the time I came off the medication I felt like a normal functioning human again. I had the ability to recognise the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and when depression number two struck me it was that self-awareness that helped me repeat the steps I’d previously taken to win that battle too!
- Exercise really does help. Exercise has always been an important part of my routine and never more so than when I am battling negative mental health symptoms. COVID lockdown restrictions hit me hard and I struggled with feelings of isolation, overeating and lack of exercise. I had to find alternative ways of getting daily movement in before I lost all motivation and turned into a whale. I am very thankful to Les Mills for their Facebook Live workouts which I managed to do from the confines of my room. They gave me some much needed socials and (with nothing else to do) I felt more committed. I often did two sessions a day and as a result came out of lockdown feeling my fittest in years.
- I just need somebody to listen to me. This is by far the most important thing anybody can do for me if I reach out to them. Rarely am I able to take advice unless I’ve come to the conclusion myself and am ready to take action. Most of the time I just want somebody to listen to me. To know there are people in my life who aren’t trying to “fix” me gives me the strength to be vulnerable. I’m not looking to be given answers, I just want to know those I love will be there for me whilst I navigate the waters myself.
“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” — Christopher Robin from Winnie the Pooh
Life is so demanding and insular that at times I forget about the world around me. Whilst I check in with friends regularly it wasn’t until my scare that I realised I haven’t been checking in with my friends. I will aim to do better because they consistently do better for me. With that in mind if anybody reading this is struggling, please know I am here for you! I will listen without judgement and I will be there for you as you ride the waves to shore. I am a phone call, text or email away. Friend or stranger it doesn’t matter! I am here for you… So before I sign off let me just ask one last thing… “R U OK?”.